For Delon Weerasinghe, going grocery shopping is not unlike setting out on a treasure hunt. Many of the ingredients he keeps in his small pantry aren’t easily available and an adventurous spirit is a prerequisite for cooking with them. What comes out of his kitchen is, as a result, rather unusual – like the lotus seeds simmered slowly in rich meat stock (perhaps best described as a sort of delectable Sri Lankan risotto) or the seafood that is ‘cooked’ by allowing it to sit in the pungent vinegar he makes from Jaffna grape wine. Better than expensive foreign brands and redolent with spices his red Jaffna ‘vinegar’ is nothing like what you’d get anywhere else, Delon assures me. I imagine this is equally true of the wildly inventive, flavourful fusion food he delights in serving up.
|Chop, chop: Delon at work. – Pix by Saman Kariyawasam|
An award winning playwright, filmmaker, writer, actor and director, Delon is in the news again this week, but this time as one of three judges on the panel for the Gratiaen Prize. However, his next book is likely to disappoint any fans expecting something along the lines of his politically charged, 2005 Gratiaen prize winning play ‘Thicker than Blood’. Hints of what we might expect can be found up on the board he keeps in his cosy apartment – tacked to it are exotic, newly invented recipes that he hopes will eventually make their way into a cookery book or perhaps even a T.V show. Currently, only one of those recipes is for a dessert – a chilli, crusted in toffee and stuffed with coconut and honey. “I don’t have much of a sweet tooth,” Delon confesses. What he does love though are his meats.
So much so, that Delon makes his ham, bacon and sausages from scratch at home and built his own smoker. For his preserved meats, he likes to experiment with Sri Lankan spices, pairing pork with cinnamon or flavouring sausages with curry powder. His signature dish is a whole boneless roast chicken, stuffed with a half-boiled egg, smoked bacon, chicken liver and apple.
If we had had another five hours to spare, we might have feasted on suckling pig smoked bacon ribs cooked in a rich red barbecue sauce but for now we’re settling for his beef offal pot pie, a dish he describes as “a fusion of two classics: the ‘Kalu pol kalawang’ curry with western comfort food of the pot pie.” He serves it topped with creamy, herb mash. “It’s very rich and flavourful,” he says, adding that promise that “it will change your mind about offal forever.” Having never eaten offal before, I have my reservations, but Delon is convincing.
There seems to be no part of the animal that Delon won’t cook and he’s not in the least bit squeamish. “It’s not a philosophy I developed, it’s the kind of food I grew up with,” he says. As a child, he remembers that his family couldn’t afford expensive cuts of meat, but no matter – the off cuts were the more delicious anyway. “They’re brilliant – flavourful and beefy. If you cook them right, they actually taste better than the cuts you’re used to.” Surrounded by great cooks, Delon first began learning how to be one with his grandmother when he was 7 years old and later in his teens, he began cooking by himself.
Now, brief infatuations with different world cuisines have left his recipes boasting a melange of influences. He serves us a prawn-head, coconut-milk white soup with bean thread noodles, topped with coconut crusted prawns.
“This is based on a prawn-head soup recipe I learned from a Burgher aunty from Batticaloa,” he says, explaining that he incorporated Thai, Sri Lankan and Japanese elements and used a French technique to prepare it. “There’s no reason food should be racist anymore.” It’s clear Delon is a creative cook, if not a particularly organised one – he forgets to add both the seaweed and the bean sprouts he’d kept ready in the kitchen, but the light soup is delicious anyway.
Also on the table is a generous salad of greens, its sharp kick of heat delivered by slivers of red kochi and its tang drawn from the sourness of raw green mango, both plucked fresh from his small garden.
The dish is one of his favourites – he is something of a health food fanatic, and he’s always looking for ways to up nutrition and lower the glycaemic index or GI of a dish.
All that’s missing when he serves us this time is a handful of ‘karang’ – a fern that Delon likes to use to add a minty crispness to his salad. Unfortunately, he hasn’t spotted any today, it being more likely that he would find it growing by the road somewhere than in the local supermarket.
We sit down to a meal on his small, pretty balcony. He has a little plot of soil which is currently supporting a bush with sweet, red cherries and says he has plans to grow his own grapes.
Though I’m not a full convert, Delon is simply pleased he’s challenged my preconceptions of what offal would taste like. He is nostalgic for a time when we knew our food better and were less squeamish – and that wasn’t all that long ago. “We’re just one generation away from so many of these dishes,” he says, clearly hoping that we just might find room for them on our dining tables again.
Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on May 20, 2012. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by Saman Kariyawasam.